The snowflake generation

Recently I was interviewed for an article in OUTNews about the term ‘snowflake’ and whether we are in the midst of a snowflake generation. You can read the full article here, and here’s what I had to say…

1. How would you respond to common accusations of “snowflakery” within the LGBTQ+ community?

The snowflake insult tends to conflate a few different things. If you look into the meaning it includes the idea that ‘snowflakes’ believe they are particularly unique and special (like every snowflake is different), as well as the idea of being particularly fragile – and therefore in need of protections like safer spaces.

Teasing these things apart I wouldn’t say that LGBTQ+ people are especially unique, but I do think the snowflake metaphor is useful for thinking about gender and sexual diversity. When we consider intersectionality, and how every person is positioned in relation to multiple intersecting aspects including gender, sexuality, race, class, disability, age, generation, nationality, etc. then snowflake is about right. There won’t be any two people where this constellation of aspects is identical. That helpfully draws our attention to the ways in which all of us are privileged in some ways, marginalised in others, and how we need to hold our similarities and our differences simultaneously. Snowflakes all look similar, but in fact they are unique.

Are LGBTQ+ people particularly fragile? Again it’s more complex than that. We live in a culture which is rooted in hierarchies whereby some people, bodies, and lives are regarded as – explicitly or implicitly – more normal, healthy, or highly valuable than others. All of the groups on the more marginalised end of those hierarchies have less power and privilege and face more discrimination and hatred on a daily basis. This takes a toll as we can see when looking at statistics on mental and physical health. LGBTQ+ people – like women and BAME people – have higher rates of mental health problems than average because they’re disadvantaged – and often traumatised – in a society that sees heterosexuality and cisgender as the normal, superior, way of being. This can make us more fragile. It can also make us more resilient. George Takei’s comment about snowflakes being powerful when they take the form of an avalanche captures that duality.

2. How would you respond to those who accuse, for instance, trans people requiring safe access to spaces appropriate for their gender of being “snowflakes”?

To my mind this is not about trans people saying we are particularly unique, or particularly fragile. It is more about recognising the unequal power dynamics in wider culture and trying to even the balance. If we can agree that no people, bodies, or lives are inherently more valuable or ‘normal’ than others, then everyone should have equal access – for example to bathrooms where they can pee in safety, to media which represents people like them in positive ways, and to daily interactions with others where their identity isn’t constantly called into question or they have to answer intrusive questions about their genitals or medical history. If there’s no media debate on whether cisgender people’s genders are real or whether they might be misguided in believing they are the gender that they say they are, then there shouldn’t be a media debate on that in relation to trans people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be having interesting conversations about how gender works and the impact it has, but don’t focus that on trans people.

3. Even some members of the LGBTQ+ community say that many of these accusations are valid, and that sometimes we try to move too fast and harm our movement in the process, for example by quickly attempting to introduce non-binary genders into common parlance. How would you respond to this?

I feel like we’re starting from the wrong place if we take for granted that there is some kind of a normal group in society that we’re gradually working to add all the marginalised or minority people into. That’s the model here. It’s like the norm could just about cope with adding in lesbian and gay people twenty years ago, but bisexual people were told they had to wait their turn because they were confusing and they muddied the water. Now there’s a sense that maybe we can begin to open to trans people, but perhaps only trans men and women because non-binary people will be too complicated for ‘normal folks’ to get their head around.

Instead we need to question this whole model of normal versus abnormal that we’ve been fed. It’s not that LGBTQ+ people – or trans and non-binary people – are snowflakes. The point is that we are all snowflakes. Everyone is diverse in terms of their gender and sexuality. There is no norm. For example, over forty percent of young people are somewhere on a spectrum between heterosexual and homosexual. Over a third of people feel that they are to some extent ‘the other gender, neither gender, or both genders’. Well over two thirds of people have some form of kinky fantasies, and a similar number are non-monogamous at some point in their life. Add all this together and the number of people who are some kind of pure heterosexual, cisgender, only into penis-in-vagina sex with a monogamous partner is actually pretty low.

So I don’t think it’s about gradually adding new identity categories to the group of people who is seen as normal or valid, with each new group having to somehow wait their turn for grudging acceptance. Rather it should be about shifting the whole understanding of gender and sexuality to one of diversity – or snowflakes – rather than a normal/abnormal binary.

4. How would you respond to the idea that those who object to things such as two men holding hands in an advert are in fact guilty of being “snowflakes” themselves?

I think it’s clever how people have turned the snowflake accusation around on the accusers. If people become so upset and offended about LGBTQ+ rights then aren’t they being just as ‘fragile’ as the people they are accusing of being too-easily upset and offended? Again though I would question an ‘us and them’ approach as any kind of long term solution to this. As long as we remain in separate camps accusing each other we won’t get very far, and a lot of people will be hurt in the process. What’s needed is an end to the attempt to categorise people into more or less normal, or more or less snowflakey, and a recognition that we’re all diverse across multiple spectrums of gender, sexuality, and much else. Then we can work to redress the balance whereby some of been valued less than others on the basis of such spurious distinctions.

Find out more

Check out my books Queer: A Graphic History, How to Understand Your Gender, The Psychology of Sex and – coming soon – Life Isn’t Binary.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).